I left off with mentioning some of the things I did on my first day but I explained very little. First of all SEWA, which stands for Self Employed Women’s Association, is actually a large umbrella organization. Under the name of SEWA is SEWA Bank, SEWA insurance and health, and a number of other groups. Mirai works with the insurance part of SEWA, I will be working with the bank.
I am reading a book to learn more about the origins of SEWA but from what I know and from talking to people so far here is what I’ve got. Unlike many microfinance banks SEWA is not primairly a creditor but rather a place for women to save. SEWA bank is based on the notion that saving and intelligent financial planning is the way to reduce poverty. SEWA has found that it is not that the women cannot save, but that they haven’t thought to do it or it hasn’t seemed like a good idea in the past. SEWA accepts small deposits in savings accounts and the money earns interest. Once the woman has been a member of SEWA for a number of years she can apply for a loan. Additionally SEWA offers insurance plans and health coverage. Many of the women in and around Ahmedabad have themselves or seen friends and families been financially destroyed by natural disasters or health problems, insurance certainly seems pretty appealing.
The branch of SEWA that I will be working with (I think) is the micro pension program. A few years back the head people in SEWA wanted to start a pension scheme for their members. However the government/Indian bank said as a cooperative SEWA could not open its own pension program. That idea was scrapped and they looked for another way to provide retirement benefits to its members. Though the women did not have enough money to invest in a typical pension program, if their money was combined they would. SEWA found the UTA Retirement Benefit Pension Fund, a balanced fund that SEWA trusts with its member’s money. The UTA is a balanced fund meaning that half of the deposits are invested in the Indian stock market and the other half in government securities. SEWA collects the small deposits from its members and then deposits in a UTA account. In this way the individual’s money earns interest and has greater protection in old age. Otherwise the women have to work long into old age or rely on family members, neither of which are surefire or ideal.
I am not sure exactly what my job will be yet. I was told that I might be useful in writing up the reactions of the women towards the pension program and providing SEWA with other documentation on the program. I was supposed to meet with Jayshree yesterday to discuss my role more in depth. I waited for over an hour to go into her office and when I got there Maya (the half-Gujarati girl from the U.S.) was about to be taking to a presentation on the pension program. Jayshree asked if I wanted to stay and ask her questions about the program or go off and see the presentation. Though I am sure there will be many more presentations I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity, especially because in this instance I had the option of going with someone my age who spoke English.
Off I went with a worker at the bank and Maya in a rickshaw to a poor neighborhood in Ahmedabad. On the way I found out that Maya is from Connecticut and going to be a senior in high school, but i originally thought she was several years older. Her mother is Gujarati and she comes to Ahmedabad every summer. This is her first time working with SEWA but many of the top people are like family to her. She does not know exactly what she will be doing while she is here yet but eventually she wants to go into development work and SEWA is obviously a good place to start. About SEWA she said it is like a family and the people who work there take care of each other. I had noticed that everyone called people by their name followed by ben, Maya informed me that this means sister and though a Gujarati custom, was also quite reflective of the family nature of SEWA.
After some insane traffic and experiencing a cow urinating right next to our rickshaw we arrived at the location where the presentation was to be given. A large group of 30 or so women sat cross-legged on a tiled floor outside of a meetinghouse of sorts (I am not actually sure what it was used for). A few of the women were already members of SEWA and had spread its good name to their friends and neighbors to bring them out to the presentation. In the back stood a collection of 10 men or so standing by their motorcycles.
The presentation was given all in Gujarati, I was incredibly grateful to have Maya translating the key points. She said the presenter from SEWA kept repeating, “this is real, this is not false.” At the time I thought this might because the idea of having money returned with interest to have such a cushion in old age was a great concept that the women may not believe. I later found out that though this might be part of it, more than that she kept saying it was real because there have recently been large scams throughout Gujarat. A man will say that he can triple your money in a short time and people hand over their savings, of course the result is the he takes off with it. At the end of the presentation the woman from SEWA asked, “who wants pensions?” I was not surprised when the majority of hands went up. However, we still don’t know if they will actually show up because even when they will benefit and even with outreach it can be hard to persuade women who have never known something like this. There will be a SEWA meeting at the town hall Monday afternoon and I hope to go and see how many new women show up and what it is like.
After our meeting we went to the homes of two of the women who had been there. I am pretty sure that they were both already SEWA members, I know at least one has been with SEWA for quite some time. She told us that SEWA had approved her for a loan of 1 lakh (100,000 rupees), which is an incredible amount in this part of India. She is using this loan for a new home. While in the home of one of the women she insisted we take water or chai (tea) or at least something. If she had only known we were coming she would have made roti (bread) and a number of other things. The chai was delicious, a rich ginger with sugar and milk straight from their cows. Hopefully my stomach can handle the milk from their cows, but even if I can’t it was worth it (I say that now, if I actually get sick I am sure I will eat those words).
So far I have found the Gujarati people to be incredibly hospitable. I just wish I spoke some Gujarati, I feel bad not being able to say anything to these women. I learned a tiny bit of Hindi before coming but I have now realized that Hindi is only marginally more useful than English here. I keep wanting to translate my thoughts into Spanish when I want to communicate with someone who I know wont understand English because that is the language I am used to communicating in when English isn’t available to me. That obviously wont work here.
Hopefully I will pick up some Gujarati as a I go along. I also hope to spend more time with Maya and she might be able to teach me some Gujarati. Unfortunately I also have a huge issue with not wanting to feel imposing and I know she has family and is comfortable here. I will see how things go with her but it would make for a wonderful experience if I could spend some more time with her and have her show me around some. When we returned to SEWA Bank after our foray into the poorer neighborhoods of Ahmedabad she left for the day but said that I should give her a call if I had any questions or just wanted to speak English. I don’t currently have her number but I think Mirai may have her family’s number and either way there is plenty of time for all of that, I still need to get on getting a phone here.
From SEWA Bank I went back across the street to the insurance offices where Mirai works. To give an idea of how bad the traffic is: Mirai didn’t want me to cross the insanely busy street on my own on my first day so she sent a rickshaw so that I wouldn’t have to walk across. Over at the insurance offices Mirai was in a meeting. I had the option of going home, with the heat and having arrived early that morning I was quite tired. However there was to be a celebration party in about 45 minutes and I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see a traditional Indian party. As tired as I was, it was worth it to see the party.
The party was to celebrate SEWA’s reception of the McArthur award for $650,000. First all of the people who worked in the insurance and health branch of SEWA collected in a circle on the floor of a large open room; it was all women with the exception of two men. Mirai started with a speech explaining the award and then congratulating everyone for the work they had done. Next a few people stood up and said things. I had someone sitting next to me translating most of it but I definitely missed a lot.
After the speeches the dancing started. Everyone went out into the courtyard and music started playing. There was a very traditional dance that everyone knew the steps to. People followed in line and created a circle around the courtyard. I attempted the steps but they were much more complicated than they looked. As people joined in and it got crowded it became essential that you moved at the same time as everyone else lest you bump into people. I took that as my cue to step out and watch.
At around 6:30, after what was a very long and eventful day, we returned to Mirai’s home. I took a quick, much needed shower to cool off and then read/wrote the first half of this post until dinner. I was asleep by 9:30 and even that hour I’m not quite sure how I made it to.
And that is how I spent my first day in India.